Google's Allo is a solution in search of a problem

Getting at the root of why Google's new messaging app exists -- and why it feels so inconsequential.

Google Allo

The best apps are the ones that address a genuine problem or void in our lives. Inbox made it easier to manage incoming email, especially from mobile; Chrome made it simple to keep browser tabs synced across multiple devices and platforms; and Photos made it feasible to store and manage oodles of images without worrying about limited local space.

Now we have Allo, Google's new attempt at conquering the ever-crowded field of mobile messaging. Allo is the latest in a long and often confusing line of Google messaging apps. It has some interesting touches, like a context-based suggested reply system and an on-demand Google bot that lets you get info from the internet without leaving a chat.

Neat as those things may seem, though, I'm not convinced they're doing what we just discussed -- that is, addressing a genuine problem or void in our lives. After hearing about Allo for months and using it for the past day, I feel like the app is a solution in desperate search of a problem to solve.

And I'm just not sure that, for most of us, that problem actually exists.

'Ello, Allo

Allo, for the uninitiated, is basically an alternate version of WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or even Google's own (still in existence) Hangouts. It lets you communicate via text, photos, and stickers with people you know -- either one on one or in a group setting -- provided they're also using the app.

Allo's calling card, so to speak, is the presence of the new Google Assistant -- an artificial intelligence-based bot that lives in the app and stands by to take your questions.

The easiest way to think about Assistant is as an expanded and rebranded version of the voice search system available on Android today. You can ask it the same sorts of stuff you might ask Google by talking to your phone (or typing into a search box) now -- anything from basic facts to movie times, info on nearby businesses, news and weather, or personal info from your email (like the status of an upcoming flight).

You'll get the same sorts of answers you'd get from regular voice search, only within a chat window and with a more human-emulating vibe. 

Google Allo, Google Assistant

Assistant is the new voice search, only chattier and with more personality

And that's really the core of what Allo's all about -- keeping you within your messaging app, where many of us spend much of our time, and still keeping you connected to Google.

It's worth noting, however, that Assistant itself won't actually be exclusive to Allo; the same system will also be implemented into the new Google Home tabletop assistant device later this year, and all signs suggest it'll soon be integrated into the main Google app and turned into a core part of the overall Android experience. It appears Assistant will ultimately become a unified umbrella brand for features like Google Now and Now On Tap as well as the regular system-level voice search. Allo is just one of the many vessels in which it'll exist.

So what's the real benefit of using Allo, then? Sure, there's a touch of added convenience in being able to call up external info while chatting, without having to switch apps -- and the suggested replies can be handy on occasion -- but in the grand scheme of things, those feel like pretty minimal perks. Allo's larger value, I suspect, lies on Google's side of the equation.

Searching for Allo's value

Much has been written over the past several months about how companies like Facebook are dominating the mobile messaging market while Google sits on the sidelines. And with Facebook making a big deal lately about its own Messenger bots -- chat-based programs that let you do things like search for flights, get news, and place orders for actual merchandise -- Google is facing a serious threat of getting cut out from the kinds of interactions that serve as its bread and butter.

Remember: Google is a business, and it makes its money primarily by selling ads. In order to do that effectively, it needs you to use the internet and thus its services, including search, as much as possible so it can cater ads to your interests. If it doesn't know enough about you, it can't accomplish its primary corporate goal. And if you're spending a fair amount of time in a messaging app that provides its own nascent form of internet search, Google stands to lose out on a lot of valuable data.

(Fun fact: Facebook's bot universe is even supported by an advertising system that encourages businesses to pay to push people to their Messenger presence. Is it any wonder Google's taking note?!)

So, yeah: With that context at hand, it's easy to understand why Google wants to create its own messaging universe and do everything it can to keep you inside of it -- or at least keep you relying on Google to get wherever you need to go. The real question for us, though, isn't why Allo might be worthwhile to Google. It's why it might be worthwhile to you.

And that's where I'm struggling -- because, again, it doesn't feel like the app actually solves any meaningful problem we as consumers currently have. And for an app like this to succeed in such a crowded market of competitors, it's going to have to do something spectacular to win people over.

The challenge here is especially grand because Allo isn't only an app; it's a platform. In order for it to have any value for you, a significant portion of your friends and family are also going to have to use it. And realistically, you're probably going to have to keep using other messaging apps alongside it -- including one that's able to handle your regular SMS text messages.

(Allo can send messages via SMS to contacts who don't have the app installed, but only in a roundabout and rather confusing way -- and with the primary purpose, it seems, of getting the recipient to install the app themselves.)

It's a similar challenge to the hurdle facing Google's other new chat app of 2016, Duo, as I noted earlier this year:

What it boils down to is this: An empty party isn't a party, even if the music and refreshments are second to none. And by starting over yet again with Yet Another New Messaging Service, Google is putting itself in the difficult position of having a quiet little gathering right around the corner from the hoppin' hot spots where everyone's already hanging out.

The most frustrating part? It didn't have to be this way.

Google already had a widely adopted messaging platform on its hands in the form of Hangouts. Hangouts was designed to be a single unified spot for all of our messaging needs, with IM-like chatting along with full SMS support, voice calling, and even built-in video chat. It allows you to sign in simultaneously from multiple mobile devices and desktop computers and have your conversations always synced and available, regardless of where you are.

Hangouts was Android's default messaging app for a while, racking up plenty of registered users -- until the company inexplicably decided to shift the app to the back seat and release the confusingly named Messenger in its spotlighted place. And now here we are a year later, with Allo being thrown into the mix on top of that.

Hangouts was and is by no means perfect, but it was a solid foundation for a platform -- one that could have evolved and become quite compelling with some ongoing effort and attention (including both general refinement and the addition of Allo's better features).

Instead, what we have now is Yet Another New Messaging Service -- one that's fine enough but a difficult sell for users already inundated with established messaging options. More often than not, having the Google Assistant in a chat feels like more of a novelty than a necessity (especially considering the same info it provides is so readily available elsewhere on Android). And crucially, Allo lacks many of the core features its more mature counterparts provide -- things like full SMS support, voice and video calling, the ability to sign in from multiple devices, and an existing base of available users.

Don't get me wrong: Allo does some interesting things, and it's fun to play around with for a while. When it comes to creating a whole new messaging platform from scratch in 2016, though -- and convincing enough users to get on board for it to matter -- I just don't know that it's enough. And that's a shame, because Google could have done so much more simply by focusing on the foundation it had already created.

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

Bing’s AI chatbot came to work for me. I had to fire it.
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